The Story of the Women's Coveralls Innovation Project
Here's a high-level recap of how Helga Wear's Eileen Flyaways were created and put into service on our Victoria and North Vancouver shipyards.
It started back in early 2019 with the airing of the CBC's Stats of Life episode which detailed my journey as struggling entrepreneur working multiple jobs in the gig economy while bootstrapping my small business: designing women's safety wear to meet women's distinct body proportions and toileting needs.
Karen Clarke, the then senior supply chain manager at Seaspan's Victoria Shipyards Ltd., happened to catch the show's airing on a Friday night in late January while making dinner. It caught her attention since recent discussions in her Women of Seaspan group kept coming back to the trouble with women's Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), specifically their "Unisex" safety coveralls.
Karen reached out and invited me to come to Victoria and show the Women of Seaspan team what I had created so far (the Hildas) and to hear about the troubles their women (electricians, welders, labourers, engineers, health and safety professionals) were having with their existing safety coveralls. Karen also brought their linens service provider Alsco's regional manager, Jorge Nasciemento, to the presentation as he had been searching for women's coveralls as an option to offer their clients.
Let me tell you, while my personal challenges with male bodied PPE were similar to those experienced by this group, it became clear that the nature of their work on the shipyards presented greater risks in terms of snags, trips, even falls caused by their coveralls. The imperative for developing this product was undeniable.
Poor-fitting coveralls also greatly added to the cognitive load of women who were worrying about constantly adjusting their ill-fitting coveralls while: climbing, stepping over sills and pipes, transitioning to floor work, working in tight spaces, or performing overhead work.
At the end of the meeting I was asked if I could engineer a better option for women's flame resistant safety coveralls using my Hildas as a starting point, and I jumped at the opportunity. Alsco stepped up and offered a letter of intent to purchase pending adequate development and production of a price competitive women's safety coveralls for the women of Seaspan.
Over the next few months, Karen looped in the manager of Seaspan's Industrial Regional Benefits (IRB) Program and partnership plans were put into motion. All parties involved saw the potential for something great: local Canadian innovation and manufacturing, a women owned small business creating a new product to serve an under-represented group of women in trades and STEM...falling in line with Canada's National Shipbuilding Strategy: watch for the Helga Wear partnership clip!
And once it was rolling, our Women's Coveralls Innovation Project (WCIP) and it's IRB investment partnership with Seaspan was to be green-lit at every step.
I spent early summer 2019 engineering prototypes with novel fasteners and features aimed at maximizing mobility and adjustability with a lofty goal:
to serve every movement, every shape, and every size.
The signature Helga Wear access feature for alternate toileting option (without removing the coveralls) was perfected and incorporated, along with a handful of features essential to optimizing women's working experience including vast improvements to pockets, reinforced stitching, through-hole velcro closures, knee pad insert slots and more.
And of course, I graded the coveralls using a women's grading scheme. This means that the crucial measurement points (i.e. the bust, waist, hips, inseam) would follow the known proportions associated with women in stead of men.
Meanwhile, Karen was looking into the Seaspan archives and learned about Eileen Walker, the first woman Seaspan hired at the Burrard Drydock, in 1942. It was decided that the name of these coveralls would be the Eileen Flyaways, to commemorate Seaspan as the first Shipyard in Canada to adopt a higher standard of due diligence and gender equity where safety wear is concerned.
The Eileen prototype samples were manufactured in Edmonton, and taken to Victoria Shipyards for testing. A dozen women total were fitted with prototypes to work in for 5 days each, in the heat of late summer, reporting their detailed product feedback.
I was surprised to learn that virtually none of my novel designed adjustability features were needed, a result of the coveralls having been properly graded for women. The fit and added features were further optimized for: comfort, mobility, productivity, aesthetic, and manufacturing flow. I was glad to hear that the inseam washroom feature in some cases halved the time spent during washroom breaks.
The revised product passed one more round of comfort-testing, and by fall was ready to go into production.
Local manufacturing was delayed when Covid-19 hit in March 2020, and we were fortunate to get our production run completed before the manufacturer increased their cost of manufacturing so much that it was no longer feasible for them to produce Helga Wear.
Thus began a year's long rollercoaster of a search for a local manufacturing replacement which is a whole story unto itself (check out: Why I Chose to Offshore, and Canadian Manufacturing Miracle).
Lots of positive feedback started coming in once the product had been on the backs of the Women of Seaspan for a few months, and my main question was: were they reverting back to their "Unisex" coveralls? I am happy to report that less than 4% have.
The following year, despite the global pandemic, Eileen Flyaways were rolled out at Babcock in Victoria, and are in the middle of rollout at Seaspan in North Vancouver.
Thanks to our recent Canadian Manufacturing Miracle we are now also able to support the small batch needs of Seaspan's Health and Safety team with a safety coverall that uses the same pattern with all the amazing features, substituting the fabric colour and blend with one more suited to Health and Safety applications.
Our product line will continue to grow, and serve tradeswomen on a greater scale and in different industries thanks to the development of the Eileen Flyaways, and the investments and partnerships that made this Women's Coveralls Innovation Project possible.